Imprinting is a phenomenon in animal behaviour where an animal will prefer, or associate more strongly with, certain stimuli over others, due to a stimulus being the first it came in contact with. Imprinting displays how both learned and instinctive mechanisms combine to affect the overall behaviour of the animal.
Imprinting was first discovered in the 19th century by Douglas Spalding, whose experiments with newly hatched chickens showed that they would follow a person around, as if following their mother, if they saw this person before any other stimuli. Spalding’s experiments on imprinting also highlighted the existence of a “critical period” in imprinting learning. He discovered that the chicks would only develop this behaviour of following him if they had seen him within the first one or two days after hatching, and that if they saw him for the first time more than three days after hatching, they instead reacted with fear.
The most famous research into imprinting was carried out by Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz. Lorenz carried out experiments with Greylag geese which showed that young birds can imprint on an inanimate object, such as a rubber ball, as well as on a living creature. Furthermore, he found that the geese who had imprinted on him later displayed sexual attraction towards him instead of towards other geese.
Imprinting in birds plays an important part in their survival in the wild, as young birds must form an immediate bond with their mother for protection and survival. Another example of a mechanism which determines the behaviour of animals is habituation, where an animal learns over time to ignore certain stimuli.
Although the imprinting learning method has largely been focused on the behaviour of birds, it has been debated whether it may also apply to other animals and humans. For example, studies have shown that a baby begins to recognise its mother by the sound of her voice while still in the womb.